Lunar Pathfinder

Lunar Pathfinder

British company Surrey Satellite Technology Limited announced the implementation phase of their lunar telecommunications satellite, Lunar Pathfinder, which after its planned launch in the fourth quarter of 2022, will be used by other missions to the Moon to relay telemetry and data back to Earth, in the same way that satellites around Mars currently relay signals from surface rovers on that planet.

Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) is itself paying for the construction of the satellite; telecommunications services of the satellite will be sold to the European Space Agency under contract, and SSTL hopes to sell such services to other governmental and private organisations.

NASA intends to put the “first woman and the next man” on the Moon in 2024 in Project Artemis, at a location near to the south pole of the Moon, followed by 2028 with a sustained presence on the Moon; Lunar Pathfinder will be placed into a highly elliptical orbit which will enable it to maintain contact with the southern hemisphere, and the polar Aitken Basin region, for lengthy periods. Lunar Pathfinder will be of especial use for communications with missions, both robotic and human-crewed, to the far side of the Moon, where, of course, direct radio communication is currently impossible. Lunar Pathfinder could be an enabling factor for small-scale, low-budget projects which would, under other circumstances, need their own communications relay, pushing up the cost of such ventures, and all lunar missions, surface or orbital, will receive an increase in data transmission rates by virtue of a dedicated communications relay in Near-Moon space.

Lunar Pathfinder will have a mass at launch of approximately 300 kg. The satellite will use S-band and UHF frequencies to communicate with spacecraft on or near the Moon, and the X-band to signals back to Earth. It is expected that Goonhilly Teleport in Cornwall will be used for uplink and downlink.

Lunar Pathfinder – detail

This opportunity comes to SSTL because of the £12m investment by the UK Space Agency in the ESA lunar exploration budget, at the recent Space19+ ESA ministerial council at Seville, in Spain; the British government has also put £15m into the Lunar Gateway circumlunar space station project, these sums being part of UKSA’s £374 million per year investment in ESA. It is hoped that Britain can play a part in the communications facilities for this station: Sue Horne, Head of Space Exploration at UKSA, said that “This would be to talk from Gateway to surface missions. This should be compatible with Lunar Pathfinder. So, you can see our strategy: We’d like to take a lead in deep space communications with Goonhilly, Lunar Pathfinder and Gateway. We’re carving out an area for the UK.”

SSTL is also conducting a feasibility study for ESA for a constellation of satellites in circumlunar orbit, not only for communications but for a satellite navigation service for near-lunar space. SSTL have experience in this area, having been a part of the consortium that has manufactured the satellites for the European Galileo navigation satellite system; accurate navigation on the lunar surface for be vital in expanded Moon exploration. Lunar Pathfinder will demonstrate both technology and a service, providing the chance for the development and standardisation of an infrastructure for lunar communications, and to gain experience in this field. Nelly Offord Harlé, Business Manager for Exploration at SSTL, said that “Lunar Pathfinder is a ‘pathfinder’ – it will prove the technology but also test the viability of a commercial market for telecoms services at the Moon. When the future constellation is launched, Pathfinder will become a node within that network.” Managing Director of SSTL, Phil Brownnett, added “Lunar Pathfinder will be the first commercial service to address the need for data relay around the Moon, and will not only demonstrate an innovative business idea, but we fully expect it to also stimulate the emerging Lunar market. By pioneering a commercial solution and service delivery model in lunar orbit, SSTL and ESA are opening the door to providing services to the solar system, and contributing to the scientific progress of deep space exploration.”

David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, said that the Moon was “A cornerstone of ESA’s exploration strategy… this decade we will see humans and robots visit uncharted territory and return with new discoveries, communications is key to send scientific and operational data to Earth. We are returning to the Moon with commercial and international partners, and the Lunar Pathfinder mission will be an integral part.”

Summarised by Griffith Ingram

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